It does hit the heart, doesn’t it? The thought that we or a loved one might die alone, a victim of the coronavirus, quarantined, and unable to have loved ones sharing words of support and love. This feels devastating. When these thoughts strike me, I am moved to tears. And yet, I find comfort in knowing that, in the end, those who suffer without loved ones near will, in death, deeply feel and know their presence. I trust this because I experienced it myself.
Several years ago, I was stricken with a rare heart syndrome called takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The condition strikes suddenly, mimicking a heart attack but without any underlying causes. Because of its rarity, it often is misdiagnosed and death can occur. That’s what happened to me. For hours and hours doctors struggled and failed to control my racing heart until it gave out and I flatlined. What happened next is how I now know we are not alone when we die.
In brief, I had what often is described as a “floating above the room” experience. I watched as the cardiologist and nurses struggled madly to get me back. I saw my husband Mark’s stricken face and felt so sad for his anguish. What I felt mostly, however, was love.
It is important to note here that except for Mark, no one knew what was happening. My sons, parents, and brothers—all of whom were hundreds to thousands of miles away—had no idea I was in the hospital, much less how serious the situation was. At the time, Mark didn’t even have a cell phone to let them know and wasn’t about to leave my side to call anyone. And yet, I felt those closest to me deeply present in this oddly peaceful out-of-body experience. I only can describe it as being surrounded by love: the distinct feeling of being wrapped not only in God’s arms but also in the arms of my sons, my parents, my brothers, and others closest to me. I was, in short, held in love. There was no fear. I was not alone. I had, in fact, never felt so “not alone.”
And so now when I cry for those who endure death without loved ones at their side, my tears are for what they and their loved ones go through during those long days leading up to death. Of course, they yearn to be together. I cannot imagine not being there for those I love. I can, however, find comfort in knowing that those who die do not die alone. Carried away in the arms of God, they die in peace, surrounded by God’s love and the love of those closest to them, no matter how far away they are.
God loves us and brings love to us in surprising, amazing ways, ways we never may have imagined. Romans 8 promises us, “Neither death nor life. . .will be able to separate us from the love of God.” For me, I now know that one way God’s love came to me in death was the gift of feeling the love of those who had loved me in life. Of course, I “came back”; I didn’t enter into final death. Perhaps one reason was so that I could share this story with you in these difficult times. If it helps or brings comfort to even one of you, all I can say is, “Thanks be to God.”
*Carol Throntveit served as Director of Adult Learning and Ministry at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church for nearly two decades. She regularly planned and facilitated women’s retreats and the Day Lenten and Day Advent Journeys at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center. She lives in Saint Paul, MN with her husband, Reverend Dr. Mark Throntveit, and enjoys time with her kids and grandkids.